Wallaroos chase history-making result against Black Ferns

New Zealand and Australia are both looking to bounce back from surprise defeats and end the World Rugby Pacific Series 2024 on a high, with the Wallaroos needing to win to achieve Women’s Rugby World Cup 2025 and WXV 1 2024 qualification.

The World Rugby Pacific Four Series 2024 comes to a conclusion in North Harbour this Saturday with Australia knowing exactly what they need to do – beat New Zealand for the first time in history to leapfrog USA and qualify for Women’s Rugby World Cup 2025 and WXV 1 2024.

Australia’s first women’s test on Victoria soil didn’t go as planned last week as the Wallaroos slipped to a 32-25 defeat to USA, despite leading 20-8 at half-time.

But one consolation from an otherwise disappointing match was they secured two bonus points to leave themselves three points adrift of the Women’s Eagles and still in with a chance of achieving their pre-tournament goal of a top-three finish and a place at the sport’s two marquee events.

“We’re a team that can compete in WXV 1 and if we don’t win we’re in WXV 2 and we’ll compete there as well,” said winger Maya Stewart, one of Australia’s try-scorers against USA.

“Regardless of the outcome of the weekend, we’re going to come away and be competitive but WXV 1 is where we want to be, that’s everything so this game is massive.”

Nothing is a given

USA’s victory, which saw them overturn a heavy defeat in the previous year’s meeting, showed anything is possible in women’s rugby right now, and that point was underlined two days later when world champions New Zealand suffered their first-ever loss to Canada in 18 matches, going down 22-19 in Christchurch.

“It shows that every game is a test match and it’s not just a one-sided game. We’re definitely competitive and the Canada game (v New Zealand) showed that last week," added Stewart.

“They’re going to be wounded, they’re going to be hurt and I think it’d be great for us to climb on the back of that … They’ve blooded some new players and that’s why they’re having a few discipline issues and I think we can capitalise on that. The new girls coming through are electric and exciting but there are points there to push.”

It will take something special from the Wallaroos to pull off the victory they need, especially as they’ll be without outstanding flanker Ashley Marsters who picked up an ankle injury in the Melbourne defeat. 

New Zealand won the last two O’Reilly Cup encounters by an aggregate of 93-3 (43-3 and 50-0) and will be expected to continue their dominance over the Wallaroos who are yet to taste victory in two games under new head coach Jo Yapp.

However, Stewart remains confident Australia’s best is just around the corner.

“I think there’s just teething issues. Jo’s (Yapp) come on board and it’s so refreshing to have a new coach and we’re still learning under her," she explained.

“I think the Canada game was exciting for us. We were in that and the same as the USA game. I think that’s what exciting about this week is that it’s a new game, a new chapter and we’re able to come out and maybe put all that together for a full 80 which we haven’t done in the past years. 

“(The USA loss) was definitely disappointing for us as a group but I think everyone’s really keen to turn things around.

“Canada showed last week that New Zealand could be beaten so we’re definitely up for the challenge.

“I think the first half showcased what we’re about as a team. We have great impact players coming off the bench so if we can utilise them more and play similar to what we were in the first half, I think we’ll run away with it."

Even if Australia do “run away with it” and win by a large margin, it would not lead to an improvement on fifth place in the World Rugby Women’s Rankings as they are too far adrift of France above them.

Similarly, New Zealand, who dropped to their lowest-ever position of third last week, cannot catch either of the top two, England and Canada, if they win. But a defeat to the Wallaroos would see them drop a place for a second consecutive week, to a new all-time low of fourth.

Regardless of the outcome, New Zealand are already qualified for WXV 1 later this year as they are guaranteed a top-three place.

Ringing the changes

Australia have brought in dynamic enforcer Leilani Nathan for her maiden international start as a replacement for Marsters in one of three changes to the pack, while Cecilia Smith for Trilleen Pomare is the lone change to the backline.

New Zealand head coach Allan Bunting has freshened up his match-day squad in an attempt to get a reaction and extend their winning record against the Wallaroos to 26 matches.   

The Black Ferns have made six personnel and two positional switches to the starting line-up as they seek to bounce back from the loss to Canada.

Amy Rule earns a first start of the year at tight-head, having come off the bench against USA and Canada.

Meanwhile, Alana Bremner earns a first ever start in the second-row with her 17 previous starts coming as a flanker. This is also her first appearance of the year in what will be her 20th cap.

Elsewhere, Kaipo Olsen-Baker steps up from the bench to fill the vacated spot in a back row featuring captain Kennedy Simon, while Iritana Hohaia and Hannah King form a new half-back pairing.

Mererangi Paul – scorer of the fastest hat-trick in women’s test rugby against USA a fortnight ago – shifts to the right wing to allow Women’s Rugby World Cup star Renee Holmes to return at full-back for her first test of the year.

“We have taken some critical learnings from our game against Canada. This is now our opportunity to move on and take this next challenge against Australia. There is a great rivalry between our two nations, we know Australia are coming off some pain as well and know how well they played at the end of last year,” said Bunting.

“We are looking to see change in our mental preparation this week. Alongside this, we have a refreshed starting 15, which is growing the depth in our squad, and offers them an opportunity to show their capabilities in what will be another intense battle.”

Last updated: May 24, 2024, 9:30:14 AM
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